BEIRUT (AP) — A suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden car Saturday in Syria’s central city of Homs, tearing through an area largely populated by the regime’s Alawite sect and killing seven people, a state-owned TV station reported. Meanwhile, government troops took control of a key village as the regime presses its offensive to clear a path between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast.
With the help of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, President Bashar Assad’s regime has been chasing rebels from long-held strategic areas linking the capital, Damascus, with the government stronghold areas along Mediterranean coast. It gained momentum this week after seizing the strategic city of Qusair and the army has begun advancing north toward the cities of Homs and Aleppo.
Syrian state TV also said Saturday that government troops took control of the village of Buwaydah between Qusair and Homs after intensive clashes.
Abu Bilal al-Homsi, an activist in the old quarter of the city of Homs who has links with several rebel groups, said via Skype that rebels sustained heavy losses late Friday as they attempted to flee the village with their wounded and civilians. Al-Homsi asked to be identified by his alias because of security concerns.
The state-owned Al-Ikhbariya TV said the attacker detonated the explosives-laden car in a busy area near a roundabout in the Homs neighborhood of Adawiya, which largely houses Alawites, members of a minority sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The report said the seven killed included three women and a teenager, and said 10 other people were wounded as the blast heavily damaged nearby houses and vehicles.
Television footage showed frantic residents running around, blood splattered on the ground and a badly mangled car. Other cars on the street were also damaged. A reporter from the station on the scene said the car was carrying about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of explosives.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of informants inside Syria, confirmed that the car was booby-trapped. It also said seven were killed, citing preliminary reports.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but car bombs are the usual tactic employed by Sunni extremists among the rebel ranks.
The rebels are largely from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and have been joined by Sunni fighters from other countries, while the government is backed by fighters from the Shiite militant Hezbollah group, making the conflict increasingly sectarian in nature.
Homs, the capital of the province of the same name, is home to one of the biggest Alawite communities in Syria and is widely seen as pro-Assad. The rebels are in control of the city center, including its old quarter, but are besieged by regime forces on the outskirts.
Many towns north of Homs also are rebel-controlled, but Hezbollah-backed government forces have been clearing rebels from villages and towns to the south. Fierce fighting in the area in the past three weeks has left dozens of rebels, troops and Hezbollah fighters dead and hundreds wounded.
Government forces also battled rebel fighters north of Aleppo and by a military air base that has been under rebel siege for weeks. Clashes in the suburbs of Damascus, meanwhile, left seven people dead, including a rebel and a medic who was treating an injured fighter, according to the Observatory.
In fighting elsewhere, rebels attacked a checkpoint manned by troops and pro-government gunmen in the central town of Salamiyeh, killing 11 of them and wounding more than 20, the Observatory said. It added that several rebels also were killed, although it didn’t have a specific figure.
The Lebanese Red Cross announced that it has evacuated 38 people who were wounded in Qusair from the Syrian border to hospitals in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley over the past two days.
The Syrian conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011, but later degenerated into a bloody civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people, according to United Nations officials. It also has spilled over the borders with Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and Iraq, threatening to ignite a broader regional conflict.
Syrian rebels briefly captured a crossing point along a cease-fire line with Israel in the contested Golan Heights. It was later recaptured by government troops, but the fighting prompted Austria to announce it was withdrawing its peacekeeping contingent from a U.N. force that patrols the Israeli-occupied area.
Russia had offered to send its troops to replace the Austrians at the Golan, but the United Nations said the disengagement agreement that established the cease-fire along the Israel-occupied Golan does not allow the participation of troops from a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
On Saturday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov wrote on his Twitter account that the cease-fire agreement was outdated and called on the U.N. Security Council to consider new arrangements.
If the U.N. Security Council “truly is concerned about the tension in the Golan Heights, sending a Russian military contingent there is the solution,” Gatilov wrote. “And there’s no need to refer to 40-year-old limitations. The tasks of supporting peace and stability require a different way of political thinking. Deciding which countries can join the UN contingent in the Golan is not within the competency of the UN General Secretary’s spokesperson. It’s an issue for” the Security Council.